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How a Study on Giving Circles Led to the Launch of Philanthropy Together

by Isis Krause
How a Study on Giving Circles Led to the Launch of Philanthropy Together
ABOVE: Giving circle leaders gather at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Wash. in April 2019. (Photo Credit: Gates Archive/Bruce Tom)

The idea of a giving circle is as simple as it is powerful: a group of individuals pool their resources and decide how to channel their generosity collectively.

Too often, when people think of philanthropists, they picture a group that is primarily rich, primarily white, primarily men, and primarily American. However, giving circles, one form of collective giving, bring together a widely diverse group of individuals coming together to support the causes and communities they care about. In short, giving circles help people engage in philanthropy, together.

The giving circle movement has been recognized as a growing trend since 2007 when initial research was done on its popularity. As the movement continued to shift the narrative of who engages in philanthropy, the Collective Giving Research Group (CGRG) conducted a landscape study to capture data and gain a deeper understanding of their tremendous growth. It was a pivotal move that not only gave the field a roadmap to amplify and empower giving circles and networks — it sparked the genesis of the infrastructure organization, Philanthropy Together.

Conducted in 2016, The Landscape of Giving Circles/Collective Giving Groups in the U.S. – 2016 came together under the leadership, guidance, and hard work of these exceptional professionals within the field:

This research was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, via the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, who recognized the importance of advancing knowledge in order to advance the field.

The study’s findings were exciting: the researchers identified more than 1,600 giving circles around the U.S. that had engaged at least 150,000 people in all 50 states and given as much as $1.29 billion since their inception. This research gave the leaders of giving circles and collective giving groups a strong call-to-action moment by providing a comprehensive look at the needs, challenges, and successes of the giving circle movement.

CGRG has since released three additional rounds of research, digging further into the state of giving circles both nationally and internationally.

As giving circles were on the rise, giving circle networks simultaneously increased. Spearheaded by Amplifier@JFNA, a network of Jewish-values-based giving circles, more than 20 of these networks came together to envision the future of giving circles, and to discuss how they could continue to scale and strengthen this explosive field’s impact with a sustainable plan.

Photo: Fifty giving circle network leaders meet at the Johnson Center in 2017

Fifty giving circle network leaders meet at the Johnson Center in 2017.

During two days of discussions and planning in November 2017 at the Johnson Center, 50 network leaders produced hundreds of post-its, newfound friends, and lots of ideas. But one critical missing link became evident: beyond the bells and whistles of a communications campaign blitz, annual conventions, and webinars, this field needed infrastructure to scale and strengthen this movement over the long-term.
 

“During two days of discussions and planning…50 network leaders produced hundreds of post-its, newfound friends, and lots of ideas.”

 
CGRG’s research showed that giving circles were clearly here to stay and had the potential for massive growth to support local causes and initiatives globally. Yet these groups lacked an adequate infrastructure to accelerate and scale their growth. Just as the Council onf Foundations, the United Philanthropy Forum, or the Association for Regional Grantmakers existed to support and serve grantmaking foundations and various philanthropic entities, giving circles needed a similar infrastructure organization.

With a seed grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, five diverse giving circle networks and leaders embarked on a 12-month co-design process, led by consultant Isis Krause, to bring this work forward. Along with more than a hundred additional voices across the field (funders, individual giving circles, consultants, researchers), the “Core Co-Design” team included:

Photo: Sara Lomelin leads a discussion at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, WA in April 2019. (Photo Credit: Gates Archive/Bruce Tom)

Sara Lomelin leads a discussion at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Wash. in April 2019. (Photo Credit: Gates Archive/Bruce Tom)

And from that humble seed planted in late 2017, the idea to amplify and empower giving circles and networks revealed itself in full bloom as Philanthropy Together in April 2020 through a launch investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and with Sara Lomelin — one of the leaders from the co-design team — as founding executive director.

The Philanthropy Together mission has remained, almost word for word, as it was co-designed to be that first day in 2017: to diversify and democratize philanthropy by connecting and catalyzing the field of giving circles.
 

“The Philanthropy Together mission has remained, almost word for word, as it was co-designed to be that first day in 2017: to diversify and democratize philanthropy by connecting and catalyzing the field of giving circles.”

 
From the beginning, Philanthropy Together’s work has been grounded in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Philanthropy Together understands the urgency of bringing diverse voices to the table and strives to uplift the many cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs that fuel this global movement.

Launching during a time when support and community are needed more than ever, Philanthropy Together has moved swiftly to deliver initiatives for the field-at-large, aligned with four strategic goals:

  • Showcase: To expand awareness of giving circles by highlighting the vast and growing field of giving circles through press and video, and developing com, a simple way of explaining and sharing this people-powered philanthropic approach.
  • Scale: To directly seed the start of hundreds of new giving circles and reach 3,000 giving circles by 2025. Philanthropy Together offers its Launchpad program multiple times per year to train leaders and host organizations from around the world in how to successfully start and run their own giving circle.
  • Strengthen: To support hundreds of existing giving circles with useful resources and programming, including Communities of Practice focused on Racial Equity, Storytelling, and more. In collaboration with more than a dozen giving circle networks, the We Give Summit will be held in May 2021 to build relationships, share new ideas, and strengthen the field.
  • Sustain: To build infrastructure and develop stronger relationships across the field for increased sustainability, partnership, and capacity, especially among the many giving circle networks and hosts. This year, Philanthropy Together will launch the first-ever Global Giving Circle Directory in partnership with Grapevine.

Research is critical to Philanthropy Together’s Sustain strategy. The latest study on the global growth of giving circles mirrors Philanthropy Together’s expansion globally: what started as a national initiative soon turned global, as COVID brought out more opportunities for virtual learning and connection.

Further, CGRG’s findings that giving circle membership has become more diverse in the last five years also matches Philanthropy Together’s participation rates from people of color. Philanthropy Together’s incubator for new giving circles, Launchpad For You, is a prime example of research in practice: more than 120 leaders were trained in 2020 to launch their own giving circle from across eight countries, including 60% of participants who identify as people of color.

Photo: Philanthropy Together welcomed its inaugural Launchpad For You cohort in June 2020

Philanthropy Together welcomed its inaugural Launchpad For You cohort in June 2020.

Beyond making grants, what is the contribution of giving circles to philanthropy? Giving circles are multi-dimensional vehicles that create community, bridge divides, promote viewpoint diversity, and create opportunities for civic engagement. Given their scale and their emphasis on engaging individuals, they provide a means for people to connect with each other and with their communities, in a manner that is uniquely democratic, emphasizing their agency within their communities.

There is still much to learn from this burgeoning movement, and there is great research still to do. Those two pillars remain at the heart of Philanthropy Together’s work. Powered by the gracious support, extensive data, and generous resources of the Johnson Center and the Collective Giving Research Group, Philanthropy Together will continue to drive its mission forward while bridging the gap for future philanthropists all around the world.

Join the growing global collective giving movement! Sign up for email updates from Philanthropy Together and stay connected to the latest happenings in the giving circle field.

Isis Krause
Founder, Knead Partners
Isis develops strategic plans, facilitates strategy workshops and retreats, and leads the visioning and implementation of award-winning programs and campaigns for nonprofits, Fortune 100 brands, and network-driven initiatives across the country.